Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Derek Jeter Problem

He puts the lotion on the skin, or else he gets the hose again.

Derek Jeter invokes many emotions in people.  For Yankee fans and sportwriters, they gush over Jeter's leadership, professionalism, and character.  For Red Sox fans, it's anger, bitterness, jealous, and bile.  For everyone else it's some combination of respect and nausea, depending on the day.  As a Red Sox fan, I can't stand him.  As an objective baseball fan, I see him as a supremely talented, yet somewhat overrated, player who happened to be lucky enough to be drafted by the Yankees.  Most pundits point to his five championships as a rubber stamp for Jeter's greatness.  While I agree Jeter was an integral cog in those great Yankee teams, I see him as a beneficiary of circumstance.  Why?  During the Yankee dynasty of 1996-2000, I strongly believe the Yankees could've been just as good, if not better, with either Alex Rodriguez or Nomar Garciaparra playing SS.  Both players were more talented offensive and defensively than the future captain.  I know that might sound sacrilegious to some, but it's absolutely true.  Using Fangraphs version of Wins Above Replacement, which takes offense, defense, position difficulty, and durability, here's how the Big Three shortstops stack up from 1996-2000.

Rodriguez - 37.4 WAR
Garciaparra - 28.6 WAR*
Jeter - 26.7 WAR     

* It should be noted that Garciaparra only had 93 plate appearances in 1996, and still beat Jeter in WAR over the 1996-2000 period.

I'm not trying to trash Jeter.  I'm really not.  He was a great player.  I'm merely trying to say that Jeter's greatness (at least in terms of his championship pedigree) is not so much a function of his instincts or leadership abilities, but circumstance.  If Nomar and Jeter switched spots, it's very possible we have different views of both players.  In fact, we might be willing to give Nomar a free pass on a lot of those injury riddled seasons that derailed an almost certain Hall of Fame career.  But, I digress, as I'm want to do...

What I really want to discuss is Jeter's pending free agency.  The Yankees face a very interesting, very complicated decision going into the offseason.  On one hand, they have the face of the franchise eligible for free agency.  In recent history, there are only a few player who have been as important and identifiable to their franchises as Jeter has been to the Yankees.  Cal Ripken with the Orioles, Albert Pujols with the Cardinals, and Barry Bonds with the Giants are the others in the last 20 years that come to mind.  That's not a very deep list.  Losing Captain Jete at this point in his career would be a massive public relations hit.  Yankee fans from Newark to Westchester and Scranton to Hartford would riot in the streets, loot electronic stores, and vandalize the sides of buildings with graffiti.  (What was that?  That's the typical day in the life of a Yankee fan?  Nevermind.)  Ok.  I might be taking that a bit far, but it's only for effect.  If the Yankees fans let Jeter go, they would feel angry, confused, and betrayed.  There's no way around it.  To Yankee fans, Jeter is infallible.

On the flip side, just one year after putting up an MVP quality season (7.1 WAR in 2009), Jeter really showed his age in 2010 (2.5 WAR).  He posted a below average wOBA for the first time in his career (.320); saw his isolated power (ISO) drop to a career low .100; and saw his defense go from above average (+6.4 UZR in 2009) to below average (-4.7 UZR in 2010).  So what changed between 2009 and 2010?  I'm not entirely sure.  I suspect that Jeter may've benefited from a little bit of luck in 2009.  If you look at his last four seasons (2007-2010), it becomes pretty clear that 2009 was the outlier season. 

                 wOBA        wRAA       UZR       WAR
2007           .369            22.8        -17.9        3.5
2008           .343             8.4         -0.3          3.7
2009           .390            36.6         6.4          7.1
2010           .320            -0.8         -4.7         2.5

Somehow, Jeter managed to buck the trends of Father Time, and put together an MVP season during his age-35 season despite the fact he was in apparent state of decline.  So how did he do it?  Well, one thing that helped him was moving to the new Yankee Stadium, which in 2009 was a home run launching pad.  Jeter, a classic opposite field hitter, used the jet stream blowing out to right field to poke a few extra balls out of the field of play.  Want proof?  In 2009, Jeter put up a HR/FB rate of 14.6%.  In the other three seasons of our four season sample size, he put up rates of 9.3%, 9.0%, and 9.9% (starting with 2007).  Jeter's 2010 rate of 9.9% was nothing other than a simple regression to the mean.  Another reason for Jeter's home run decline was due to the rate he was hitting ground balls--a career high 65.7%.  It's incredibly difficult to hit the ball out of the park when you're pounding into the ground at such a high rate.

Jeter also seemed to be helped by a slightly elevated batting average on balls in play (.368 versus a career of .356) in 2009.  His success in BABIP is though justifiable because Jeter hit line drives on 20.3% his batted balls (line drive BABIP tends to be around .720).  In 2010, he showed significant regression in this area, posting a .307 BABIP.  So what happened?  Well, for one, Jeter's line drive rate dropped to a career low 16.1% (data only going back to 2002), while his ground ball rate soared from 57% to 65% (as I discussed above).  Jeter has always possessed plus-speed.  He's leveraged his speed over the years by purposely hitting the ball on the ground.  As a result, Jeter was able to beat out many throws to first, where most of his counterparts could not.  This resulted in additional hits.  Speed (like all skills) regresses over time.  It's likely that Jeter's speed has deteriorated to the point where he's not going to be able to prop up his batting average and on-base percentage using this strategy.  Assuming he doesn't change his strategy, this deterioration in skills will continue to get worse, thereby causing further performance regression.

This brings us back to his contract situation.  He's just completed a huge 10 year $189M contract that paid him $22.6M in 2010.  How do you tell the face of the franchise that's only one season away from an MVP-caliber campaign that it's time to take a huge pay cut?  Fangraphs Dave Cameron posted an article a few weeks back asking readers to provide input on Jeter's expected contract.  He followed it up with a second article providing the results.  Based on voting, the average length was 3.38 years at $14.91M per season.  The interesting information comes in the standard deviation.  While it appears most fans agreed that his next contract would be of the three or four year variety, they really seemed to disagree on average annual salary (standard deviation of $4.2M), with salaries ranging from $4M to $25M.  My thoughts are that Jeter will likely see a contract somewhere in the 4 year $60M contract with a fifth year option.  To sweeten the pot (Jeter will be taking a pay cut of $4M in terms of average annual salary after all), I believe the Yankees will offer him a small stake in club ownership after he retires.  This will not only allow him to continue to collecting salary from the Yankees for years after his career ends, but it will also allow him to be a Yankee for life.

This begs the question, will he be worth his projected contract?  In one word, no.  At least not in terms of on field performance.  Taking his average WAR over the past four seasons (16.8 total, 4.2 average), and regressing for age (0.5 WAR for the first two years of his contract, and 0.75 WAR for years three and four), Jeter will be worth 11.1 WAR over the life of his contract.  Assuming a 5% increase in the value of a win on the free agent market over each of the next four seasons, Jeter's performance will be worth approximately $48M.  Clearly, this falls 20% below the value of his projected $60M contact.  Considering Jeter's stature with the franchise, this seems like a semi-reasonable premium.  If the Yankees are smart, they'll start discussing a position move with Jeter during his contract negotiations.  Moving him to a less physically demanding defensive position, could elevate his value while adding longevity to his career.  If this happens, he may be able to live up to his next contract.


  1. Great article. Well researched stats. Your arguement about A-Rod and Nomar in place of Jeter is one I've heard before and while interesting to speculate about it's all conjecture. Would A-Rod been able to succeed under the bright lights of the big city? Or would he crumble like he has in big spots before. It's so sad that Nomar's career got derailed. You can't quantify leadership though. And you'll never convince me that the Yankees would have won the 2000 world series without Jeter. His offense was pivotal in getting that 4th championship. Without him I think the Mets sweep. Bottom line is Jeter isn't going anywhere. The Yanks will probably overpay for him but there is nowhere else he can command the market value he would in NY. Jeter's said before he wants to play until he's 43. We'll see. It all depends on if he wants to take a legitimate run at Rose's record. As it is I think he finishes with around 3500 hits baring injury and maybe gets into third behind Rose and Cobb. Another interesting situation will be Mo Rivera's contract. At 40 how much do you pay him and how long do you sign him for? And where does Joba Chamberlain fit into this? It will be an interesting offseason.

  2. Yeah, switching A-Rod or Nomar for Jeter is conjecture, but it's still a plausible argument. As for A-Rod's ability to perform under the bright lights, I would argue that (a) he's been one of the best players in baseball over his tenure in NY, and (b) clutch hitting is not a repeatable skill. I'll discuss this more in a post I'll put up later this week.